On this day in history, JFK saves the crew of WWII

United States Navy Lieutenant John F. Kennedy commanded PT-109 in the Solomon Islands during World War II when his boat was struck by a Japanese destroyer on that historic day, August 2, 1943.

Kennedy’s PT-109, a fast but small patrol torpedo boat, was torn apart in the sudden collision in the South Pacific.

It exploded and sank in the early morning darkness.

Kennedy responded heroically. He swam miles across the open ocean from one remote island to another to rescue his crew, and towed an injured man across the sea with a belt clenched between his teeth.

Events had a ripple effect on his career – and on the history of the world.

The story of his incredible World War II rescue effort “followed Kennedy into politics and provided a solid foundation for his calling as a leader,” says the JFK Presidential Library and Museum in its account of the incident. .

Two of Kennedy’s 12 crew members were never found; they were presumed killed instantly in the collision.

The remaining 10 men all survived. Historians credit Kennedy with his cool and quick response, strength, and endurance as a swimmer despite severe physical limitations that initially kept him out of the war.

John F. Kennedy is pictured as a 26-year-old Navy lieutenant on January 10, 1944.

Several men were injured, some made ill by swallowing water contaminated with fuel. Yet Kennedy led the survivors by swimming to the nearest island, three and a half miles away.

The healthy men helped the injured, aided only by a pair of wooden planks salvaged from the wreckage.

Engineer Patrick McMahon was seriously burned in the PT-109 explosion.

Kennedy towed McMahon the full distance, with his hands and his teeth. The future president also “alternately cajoled and berated exhausted (Sailor Charles) Harris to get him through the difficult swim,” the JFK Library reports.

Kennedy collapsed upon reaching a small spit of land called Plum Pudding Island – later renamed Kennedy Island. The rest of the crew also disembarked.

Their ordeal was just beginning.

Kennedy explored the surrounding islands, again swimming, moving men as needed – while avoiding Japanese patrols and the dangers of the Pacific Ocean.

Finally, he met two friendly natives on an island and, with their help, carved a message into a coconut.

“11 ALIVE NEEDS A LITTLE BOAT… KENNEDY” read part of his brief message.

The islanders set out in canoes and miraculously put the coconut message into the hands of an allied patrol.

Kennedy and his crew were rescued by PT-157 and PT-171 on August 8, six days after their boat was torn from beneath them.

Kennedy was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps Medal, the Navy’s highest non-combat honor for gallantry, and a Purple Heart for injuries he sustained during the ordeal.

Lt. John F. Kennedy, skipper of the boat PT 109, relaxes in the South Pacific, 1943. Six decades after Aaron Kumana helped rescue young American naval officer John F. Kennedy from Japanese capture in 1943, The US Navy officially acknowledged its debt to the Solomon Islands on Wednesday August 22, 2007, who for years was believed dead and unpaid.
Lt. John F. Kennedy, skipper of PT-109, relaxes in the South Pacific in 1943.

Major US media picked up his story. The nation has learned that Kennedy was initially declared physically unfit for military service, in part because of a serious back injury he suffered while playing football at Harvard.

But he leveraged the connections of his wealthy father, Joseph Kennedy, including the Director of Navy Intelligence, Captain Alan Kirk, to cut red tape and join the Navy.

“PT-109’s survival story has passed into popular culture and has become perhaps Kennedy’s greatest political asset,” National Geographic reported in 2002, following the expedition that found the wreckage of the PT-109.

Torpedo tubes and other wreckage were found 1,200 feet under the sea by explorer Robert Ballard, the same man who found the wreckage of the Titanic.

Kennedy’s heroism proved one of the formative events of his life.

“Kennedy, the president, had a PT-109 tank on his inaugural parade, handed out 109 tie pins to visitors, and kept his medals on permanent display,” National Geographic noted after his discovery of the wreckage.

“And on his oval desk sat, lacquered and almost unreadable, the most important coconut in the world.”

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